The cell phone rang.
Brittany did not move off the raft. She looked to where the phone sat and gingerly paddled across the green water, trying not to get more than her fingertips wet.
Avoiding the water as much as possible, she slid off the raft and grabbed the phone. There was silence, then hissing and finally a lifeless computer-generated voice saying, “Good-Day, we are taking a survey—“
Brittany flipped the phone shut and wiped the sweat off her forehead with the dirty towel on the lounge chair. She stared at the blue sky and knew that the thunderstorms would be rolling in soon, just like they did every afternoon. Her science teacher had explained last spring that the sudden climate changes that made New Jersey much like the tropics were a direct result of global warming and greenhouse gases. She so wanted to find him now and see how he’d wheedle out of being so wrong, but she was pretty sure he was dead or a ghost.
She looked back at the pool and wondered if she should ask her dad on his next foraging raid to look for some chemicals to turn the water clear again. She figured chlorine should be plentiful since the ghosts probably didn’t use pools.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. Brittany frowned, she hadn’t really been done working on her tan, not that she got a good one this late in October. Tears burned her eyes. There were so many things she missed, and she admitted to missing just about everything, including, to her total surprise, even school. All the tanning and nail salons sitting ready but totally empty. The spas, the multiplexes, the fast food restaurants, The mall! The mall was probably a war zone. And all her friends, all so far away, only reachable over lines haunted by ghosts of a dying world. How long, she wondered would the phones continue to ring with calls from dead computer-generated voices selling a world that no longer existed.
The afternoon storm wind began to build as clouds darkened the sky, The sickly green water darkened, She picked up her towel and headed inside when the cell rang again. She grabbed it, hesitated, looked to see who was calling, but all calls now read, Out- Of- Area, so she flipped it open.
A smile crossed her face, and it felt stiff and unnatural. Smiles were getting more and more rare. “Hi, I was sure it was another automated call. Thank God it’s you, Nikki.”
“Getting your tan?”
“Yeah, you too?”
“Who’d have thought we’d be spending the first two months of the school year sunning like it’s still summer. If the trees were alive, they’d have turned colors. Oh well, having the world end so slowly does have its up-side.”
Brittany grimaced at the idea that this was really the end, although she was almost sure it was. How could those awful people do this to the world, first the climate then the plague. Didn’t they know it was their world too?
God, she missed everyone, especially Nikki. If only she could see her, but Nikki lived in that high rise building 3 miles toward Philly. Three miles—three hundred miles—what did it matter now? “Have you heard from Kaitlyn, she hasn’t called in over a week. Maybe her cell broke.”
“No, and I haven’t heard from Kelly or Shawn either. Brit, I think they’re gone,” Nikki said with a catch in her voice. “Even if their cells were broken, the land lines still work. I reached Tiffany a while ago. She told me her parents are gone, went out for supplies and either became ghosts or died.”
A ghost, Mom had become a ghost, one of the first, so they hadn’t sent her away. The tears fell, a shudder shook her from head to foot like a giant unpleasant rush and she tried to blank out the vision. Brittany still had nightmares from it, and sometimes started throwing up if she remembered it in living color. “I wonder how Dad deals,” she mumbled then remembered she’d been talking to Nikki about Tiffany. “Oh that’s awful. What will she do for food and stuff?”
“Here’s the really awful part, worse than being left totally alone, That old guy in the next condo came over and made her come live with him, at least, he said, until they find out if she’s really alone.”
“Yeww… that’s like totally disgusting.”
“No, wait, it gets even worse. He said if she’s an orphan, he’ll marry her and take care of her forever. Tiff says he licks his lips when he looks at her. Man, that guy’s so old he’ll be dead any day now. He’s got to be at least 40! Maybe she’ll be lucky and like he’ll become ED or something.”
Brittany thought about all the people left in her walled development and sighed. A few single woman, no one from her high school, no one even from middle school. Most of the houses were empty because anyone who looked the least bit pale was put out immediately. “At least someone’s there for her. Remember what happened to Mitch, Jess and Becky? Soon as their mom and dad started to turn, the neighbors threw both of them off the roof of the apartment house and the kids had to watch.”
“Really? I hadn’t heard that, how do you know?”
“Rachel told me before she… oh anyway… she said that the people in the building took all their supplies and tossed all three kids out onto the street. Mitch and Jess and Becky called everyone for help, but no one could convince their parents to let them into their enclave. After a day or so no one ever heard from them again.”
“Man, it’s like, getting really bad. I wonder how many enclaves are left?” Tiffany said, the fear traveling between their cells. “I wonder if we are all going to turn into ghosts?”
“I don’t know, I just want life to return to normal, I want a giant sweet sixteen party next summer, I want all our friends back, I want to hang out at the mall, I want a date, I want my mom!” Brittany started crying loudly. “I… I gotta go.”
Her tears fell and the storm raged outside, but it didn’t matter. Brittany knew that within the hour it would be gone and the summerlike heat would return. She turned on the TV and watched a few infomercials. She pretty well knew them all by heart, just like the cycling and recycling music on the radio, and the haunting phone calls selling to a public that didn’t exist. If the ghosts didn’t crave the light so much, everything would have shut down months ago.
Dad and Mr. Eggers next door had talked one afternoon about how the ghosts kept the power grid up because they needed the light so much. Mr. Eggers claimed the ghosts congregated in the stadiums with the night-lights on, that they couldn’t survive in the dark. Dad had said he was full off shit. Mr. Eggers also told everyone in the enclave that the ghosts skinned people and wore them to cover up their insides. Brittany smiled at the memory of Dad punching Mr. Eggers for saying that. Dad was still sensitive about Mom.
Mr. Eggers stormed out and on the next foraging raid, disappeared. Everyone said the ghosts probably got him. No one said it, but that was probably too bad for the ghosts.
The house phone rang and Brittany picked it up. “Need your carpets clea—.“
She slammed the receiver down and looked around the kitchen. The same and yet so different. Nothing was really clean; clear, fresh water had become a scarce commodity after the first few months.
Brittany saw the calendar and stared at the date, Mischief Night! God, how she always loved mischief night! She dialed her cell and heard Nikki pick up. “Hey, it’s October 30th. Wanna go to the mall and hang out? “
Nikki laughed. “Yeah, I do. I really do. Oh Brit, what’s the point of all this. We are all just waiting to become ghosts and die. Why’d those terrorists do this to the world? Didn’t they realize that they were killing everyone?”
Brittany didn’t say anything right away but finally found words, “I wish things were normal again… I wish I could see you again. I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to live like this!”
“Me either,” Nikki said and started to cry. They spent the next few minutes sobbing out all the frustrations of living through the end of the world as they knew it.
Finally, Brittany said, “Maybe I can go with Dad, they are going out foraging as soon as it gets good and dark. Maybe, you can get out and we could pick you up at least for a couple of days. I miss you so much!”
Nikki’s voice perked up. “Ya think so?” Then she dropped down to a hopeless tone, “Mom and Dad would never allow it. They’d be afraid you’re all ghosts trying to entice me out so you can wear my skin.”
“You’ve heard that story too?” Brittany asked, remembering Mr. Eggers’ words.
“Yeah, someone here actually saw a skinned body and a ghost wearing it, dripping blood as it walked in the sunlight.”
“So’s having your skin fade away, melt off a few cells at a time, until you’re clear and your guts just pulse, shine and glow in the light while they are still inside of you!” Nikki said.
Brittany gasped and choked back a sob. The memory couldn’t be stopped this time. Mom, pretty, olive skinned, black haired Mom, turning white, and then whiter, and finally transparent as her skin dissolved, layer by layer, until it dissolved completely and her insides splattered on the floor as she died. And through it all, she didn’t die right away. Her parts twitched and jerked until they finally stopped and her eyes, still attached to her skull, glazed over.
Brittany saw the whole thing, and since then, often watched her dad for signs of fading. She worked on her tan every day making sure she wouldn’t fade, ever. She wondered every night as she drifted off to sleep how anyone could have purposely created such an awful disease and she hoped that they were still alive to watch everyone they loved fade away and splash out their life onto a dirty floor.
She caught her breath then let it out, long and slow. “I’m OK, Nik.”
“I’m sorry,” Nikki said. “Look I have an idea. I don’t want to live like this anymore.”
“Don’t talk that way!”
“No, I’m serious, it’s Mischief Night and I’m going to call everyone I know and tell them I’ll be at the mall just like every year and they should join us. If enough of us show up, the ghosts will stay away.”
“If there are enough of us left,” Brittany muttered.
“I’m serious, we can’t go on like this, waiting to die or starve. Let’s all meet at the mall and make it our own enclave. Then we can call our parents and have them join us.”
“Wow!” Brittany breathed. “That’s a great idea, a giant enclave instead of a bunch of little sheltered forts, gated communities, and apartment buildings. Why didn’t someone think of that before?”
“Look, we will wait till dark and sneak into the mall through the loading dock, remember that door with the broken lock? Anyway, once inside, we will knock out most of the lights and it will be safe. Once we get everyone in, we’ll just barricade the whole place up. There’s plenty to eat and do, and we might even get the cinema working again and actually watch something besides those forever spooling infomercials.”
Hope, a feeling almost dead, suddenly reemerged from the deep place it had been hidden. This was going to work! She knew it. At last, hope, an end to despair and that awful loneliness. Brittany hung up and spent the next hour on the phone, most of the time calling numbers with no answer, but occasionally hitting a live friend or acquaintance.
She made dinner, canned soup, for her dad and tried to pretend everything was normal. Luckily, her dad rarely noticed her moods anymore. Life had become too serious to pay attention to anyone normal. She fought off the jittery feeling in her belly, the weakness in her knees. This was a great plan, a hope for the future! There was nothing to be afraid of, her friends would protect themselves and they start life over in her favorite place in the world. Dad wouldn’t even be mad once she called him from the mall.
Darkness fell early as usual, as autumn slowly moved toward winter. Her dad kissed her cheek. “Lock up, Baby, and I’ll be home in a few hours.”
As soon as he left to go on the foraging raid with the other remaining men, she dressed for the mall. It was the first time she’d had real clothes on in weeks and it felt so good. She took half an hour with her hair and make-up.
At the door, she had one last look at herself in the mirror and noted with relief that she still had a healthy tan. She went outside, shimmied up the dead tree next to the wall and jumped over it.
It felt funny, free for the first time in what seemed forever and yet she was so scared. Her stomach fluttered and clenched as she tried to tiptoe the mile and a half to the mall. She avoided all the streetlights and hugged the shadows. After what seemed like hours, even though she knew it was less than one, she saw the mall loom up. The ghosts were shimmering under the huge parking lot floodlights and she gasped. This was the first time she’d really been around them since… since Mom. She wondered if they were contagious, if they really killed the healthy-skinned. She wondered how they could live huddled together watching each other die hideously and knowing that they were next. A part of her half wanted to go up to them and offer comfort, but she turned and ran silently to the loading dock and into the silent mall.
The fountain was quiet and filled with algae covered water. Brittany sat beside it and waited for Nikki and the gang. She felt such relief that she and her friends had found a solution to the loneliness, and as everyone knows, there is strength in numbers. Yet here she was, alone. Noises echoed down the empty halls. She knew it had to be just random sounds. She tried to feel brave , she got up and walked to the store across the way. The fashions were old, last season, but she realized with a semi-hysterical laugh, that fashion would always be last season. Maybe this was a dumb idea after all. She looked at another storefront and went in to try on a pair of shoes. Some of the lights were on and Brittany wished that Nikki would hurry and show up so they could dim them more, just to be on the safe side.
She heard a loud noise and ducked down. Could it be ghosts? She stayed hunched behind a rack and panicked. What if the place was full of ghosts? What if it were her friends?
No matter, she had to get out, either find Nikki or run home. She tiptoed out in her new sandals and looked down the long corridor to the right. Nothing!
The sounds were coming from the left. She prepared to run, as she looked over her shoulder and heaved a shaky sigh of relief. A group of figures were coming toward her in the low light and the leader was wearing Nikki’s favorite hat. Nikki never went to the mall without it, it was her signature. Brittany had always been jealous that Nikki thought of the hat first.
She waved and Nikki waved back. See, everything was going to be fine, she thought, berating herself for any doubts she’d had. But all the same, a tickle of fear run up her back as she noticed that the group coming toward her was getting larger as more people joined in from the stores. Chilled, in the hot building, she started to back away.
The overhead lights snapped off completely. Brittany stood in the total dark, a wave of relief covering her with a comforting weakness. Her heart struggled to return to a normal rhythm. The crowd couldn’t be ghosts after all, not in the dark. They hated the dark.
Just as suddenly as they’d gone off, all the lights flashed on, momentarily blinding her.
As her eyes adjusted, she wished they hadn’t. She stared at the ghost standing directly in front of her, the ghost wearing Nikki’s hat and, of course, Nikki’s skin. The other ghosts were similarly attired. They all appeared to be holding large, sharp knives.
Brittany stood frozen. A hopeless giggle bubbled up her throat and she came to the inane and random realization she was obviously a night off, when the Nikki garbed ghost whispered, “Trick Or Treat,” and closed in on her.
By Diane Arrelle
Diane Arrelle, the pen name of South Jersey writer Dina Leacock, has sold more than 250 short stories and has two published books including Just A Drop In The Cup, a collection of short-short stories. She has a new collection of horror stories, Season’s Of Fear, due out in late 2017.
She is a founding member and past-president of the Garden State Horror Writers and past president of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference.
A recently retired director of a municipal senior citizen center, she is co-owner of a small publishing company, Jersey Pines Ink LLC. She resides with her husband the edge of the Pine Barrens (home of the Jersey Devil).